By Chris B.
Iran’s mass production of the Ghadir class submarine continues to support Iran’s focus on indigenous development of defense equipment as well as bolster Iran’s asymmetric naval strategy.
Let’s face it, Iran’s naval vessels are no match for their US military counterparts, especially in the realm of conventional fighting. However, Iran is anything but a conventional player.
Attesting to that fact, is Iran’s mass production of the Ghadir coastal submarine whose numbers are reported to be well up around 20—though 20 Ghadir have yet to be observed on open source satellite imagery.
Notwithstanding, the Ghadir, along with other Iranian naval achievements, have been featured in the press and reported quite widely among Iran watchers.
Most recently, Admiral Khordad Hakimi, Commander of Iran’s 4th Naval Zone headquartered at Bander Anzali on the Caspian, reiterated Iran’s capability of mass producing the light submarine, a statement first uttered by Brigadier General Vahidi back in 2010.
“Iran is mass producing light submarines, [and] semi-heavy submarines are now under construction in Southern Iran,” Kakimi told the Fars News Agency on 24 September 2013.
This news, though far from breaking, continues to highlight Iran’s deterrence policy which seeks to inform would-be attackers of Iran’s increasing capabilities to threaten important sea lines of communication, specifically those running through the Strait of Hormuz.
A significant amount of the world’s energy supply traverses through the strait (approximately 20 percent), making it by far one of the most important maritime choke points in the world. As far as Iran is concerned, threatening this area is its trump card, a last resort to increase the costs associated with a potential strike against the regional power, despite the impact on its own economy.
The Ghadir, armed with two 533mm torpedo tubes as well as the capability to carry mines, are well suited for conflict in the shallow waters of the strait, even with their low quality of build. As a result, the submarines play an important role in Iran’s asymmetric strategy which, when combined with Iran’s acquisition of shore-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles and fast attack craft, become a potent force to defend Iranian interests and threaten those of its adversaries.
Disruption of shipping lanes or merely the threat thereof can have a significant impact on world market prices, so much so, the US has spent close to USD 8 trillion protecting precious cargoes in the Gulf since 1976, according to one estimate. And the costs of defending the Strait do not appear to be decreasing any time soon.
Rising tensions with Iran last year saw the US Navy deploy at least four additional mine countermeasure ships to Bahrain — home of the US Navy’s 5th fleet — as well as F-22s to Al-Dhafra while continuing to expand Al-Udeid airbase in Qatar. And in September, the Navy published a contract suggesting an increase in the future orbits of the naval variant of the RQ-4, the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstration (BAMS-D) aircraft.
The BAMS-D, subordinate to Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Five, was first deployed to Al-Dhafra in the UAE in January 2009 where it has been performing surveillance missions over the strait for the last four years. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert has said that the Navy uses the aircraft on every strait transit keeping a close eye on Iranian movements near the narrow shipping lanes.
Not surprisingly, the BAMS-D was deployed to the region after a couple of key events. Firstly, elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, possibly acting independently from political leadership, used its light attack craft to capture two rigid inflatables carrying 15 UK Royal Marines and Royal Navy personnel in March 2007. While the military personnel were eventually returned, the two-week long incident served as a reminder of how quickly tensions could escalate into military action.
Secondly, Iran began exhibiting additional fabrication prowess in underwater warfare systems despite growing sanctions by US and allied countries. In late 2007, Iran officially publicized the deployment of the Ghadir submarine after displaying the Nahang, another locally developed minisub, during war games in March 2006. While the Nahang is often considered a failure, probably because it was Iran’s sole indigenously developed sub, the Ghadir, based on North Korea’s Sang-O, was a more proven platform. (The Sang-O is often attributed with the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan in 2010).
Reiterating Iran’s self-reliance in defense planning, 2007 also saw engineers at Bandar Abbas begin preparations to overhaul a Kilo submarine, the Tareq, possibly with outside help. According to IHS Jane’s, a private intelligence firm, Iran had signed a contract with Russia’s Rosoboronexport to overhaul Iran’s Kilos in 2005. However, open source satellite imagery never captured the Tareq leaving Bander Abbas for Russia. Instead, it showed the submarine being overhauled on-site in a nearby dry dock, suggesting Iran undertook the lion’s share of the overhaul. These events when taken together demonstrates Iran “learning by doing,” potentially inching up the value chain in shipbuilding capabilities in the process.
Mass Production of the Ghadir
Nothing perhaps demonstrates this economic principle more than the erection of a dedicated maintenance-fabrication shop at Bander Abbas. This 60 x 49 meter long facility is complete with four bays, transverse table, and gantry crane to support the construction, launch, and repair of Ghadir submarines. Open source imagery indicates that Iran broke ground on the foundation sometime in 2005, not long after the imagery signature of the Ghadir had been observed at the nearby ISOICO shipyard the previous year. Imagery suggests the facility was probably not in operation till sometime in 2008, as it was awaiting the installation of the crane.
With the completion of the facility, it is thought Ghadir production shifted from the ISOICO shipyard to Bander Abbas, though the submarines can still be observed at the ISOICO location. While the exact reason for their ongoing presence is unknown, there is a growing number of fast attack craft nearby which may suggest the shipyard also doubles as an IRGC Navy base. (Alternatively, the Ghadir presence at the shipyard could be related to potential refits, as the submarines are routinely observed out of water).
Regardless of the reason, this production transfer narrative was reiterated when Ayatollah Khamenei visited Bander Abbas on 23 July 2011 where he gave a speech and toured the Ghadir facility.
With reporters in tow, Khamenei’s visit was captured by the major Iranian media outlets providing outsiders with a small glimpse of the operations inside. Pictures and video showed at least two Ghadir in different states of build as well as the ill-constructed Nahang submarine—the latter very seldom observed on satellite imagery.
Since the visit, Iran has continued its chest-thumping, announcing plans to deploy to the Atlantic Ocean as well as build aircraft carriers. While very few take these claims seriously, the intent however is clear. Iran’s naval forces seek to expand their maritime capabilities beyond the immediate confines of the strait.
Satellite imagery has helped Iran watchers better understand how that may occur. Not only has imagery confirmed Iran’s naval bases beyond the strait, but interestingly Iran has been deploying the Ghadir to those locations as well. So far, open source imagery has spotted six of the submarines deployed as far as Konarak Naval Base (near Chah Bahar) in December 2011 for Veleyat 91. And just last year another was spotted at Jask.
Although the utility of operating the Ghadir in deeper waters is disputed, Iran’s mass production of the submarine may see them continue to proliferate along Iran’s coastline. Such a development may even suggest that Iran has developed a concept of operations for their use in deeper waters, part of a plan for greater maritime assertiveness. However, without additional imagery, it may be too early to say.
At the very least, the Ghadir may become a stop-gap measure until Iran can deploy its heavier, more capable submarines to the area—a looming prospect now Iran has launched Fateh. At most, it shows that Iran is planning for the day when its vessels will be based further afield, able to project force in the Sea of Oman, putting additional pressure on countries it sees as a threat to its interests.
 At present up to 13 have been observed on open source satellite imagery.
 The vessels were transferred aboard the contracted vessel MV Tern and included the USS Sentry (MCM 3), USS Devastator (MCM 6), USS Pioneer (MCM 9) and USS Warrior (MCM 10).
 The BAMS-D deployed just prior to an additional flight of P-3s at Sheikh Isa Air Base in Bahrain.
 In 2009, after Iran announced it could mass produce the Ghadir, the Defense Industries Organisation reported that the Ghadir cost USD 18 million to build.